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0507 FG: The Werts focus on hay to keep their Iowa farm going into the future

Darren Olsen, Editor Published on 02 October 2007

As you drive through the Iowa landscape, corn and soybeans stretch for as far as you can see. Mile after rolling mile leads one to believe that nothing else would survive, much less thrive, in these fields.

And then it happens. Over the crest of a hill and on the right is a green field that looks almost alien next to the thousands of acres of corn, but to Jay Van Wert Sr. and his son, Jay Jr., this view of alfalfa growing strong against the corn-filled background has been a mainstay for nearly two decades.

Looking back, Jay Van Wert’s father and uncles were instrumental in establishing agricultural businesses throughout the local community in the early to mid 1900s. Jay started to add hay to the farm mix beginning in the 1960s and recalls the early days this way.

“I have raised hay since 1964. When Jay Jr. came on, we needed to find some other routes that would bring income for both families. We started looking into several different options, and the more we talked about it, the more sense it made to look at hay.”

Jay Jr. remembers coming back to the farm and shifting to a larger hay emphasis this way, “When I came home to farm, there were quite a few guys trying to get started at the time.

There was a fellow that came through that was promoting to sell hay down in the southern states. He wanted big bales, so we took the plunge and purchased a large square baler.

We were one of only three such balers in the state at the time. Unfortunately, that gentleman fell through with contracts after only one semi-load was sold, so we ended up in a situation where we needed to become not only hay producers but hay sellers and marketers, as well, because we had a baler to pay for.”

With the unforeseen loss of a ready-made hay outlet, the Werts were left with the difficulty of trying to establish themselves with a new commodity in the local market. Jay looks at the beginning years:

“We had to learn a lot of things from the get-go that weren’t easy. First, we had to learn that you couldn’t wait for the corn to get in before you cut the first hay. We ended up moving our first cutting from the middle of June to the third week of May. Going after the dairy market as our main customer helped make that decision for us.”

He added, “Another decision we had to make was are we only going to supply what we could produce, or would we find a way to have hay available to our customers year round.

We have established relationships to buy hay from several sources, depending on how the markets have been. It wasn’t an easy task, but we have found it to be a benefit to do the legwork for our customers and have a ready supply of hay whether we produce it or bring it in.”

Today, the Werts have grown to the point that they have over 300 acres of their own land in alfalfa. They also custom farm up to 600 additional acres, depending on their neighbors’ crop rotations and needs.

Today, their needs are serviced by a 12-foot disc-bine, two wheel rakes, two skidsteers and a 3x3x4 baler. While that might not sound like much to some growers, Jay Jr. was quick to point out that most people in the area think they are crazy to have so much equipment dedicated to hay production.

Over the years, the Werts have faced several obstacles that have kept them in an evolving pattern of learning and dealing with the unexpected. Jay stated, “One of the biggest things I have learned is that the hay industry is always changing, and there have been new things to learn every year.

You would think that after doing this as long as I have, I would have most of the answers, but I am beginning to figure out that no one has, or will have, them all.”

One obstacle that has been ever-present is the weather. Growing alfalfa in what is considered a wet and humid growing area has brought on a learning curve all its own. Jay noted, “Hay production in the Midwest is difficult with the weather and other conditions.

Another concern is that if people continue to push corn to fuel the ethanol craze, a lot of the animals in the area might disappear as well. Many farmers don’t want to mess around with animals if they can get what they need out of a once-a-year corn harvest. While I like to see my neighbors doing well, it could come back to bite us at some point.”

“The labor and weather keep most people in our area out of the hay business. You have to have a little different mind-set to deal with the pressures and trials that come with hay production in our region.

I have several smaller farmers that continue to come back to us year after year, stating that they just can’t deal with the weather and what it takes to put up hay.

We have determined we can put up 60 to 65 percent of our hay without rain, so we have had to find markets for our less desirable products. We have been able to work it out, but you have to expect that every cutting won’t be perfect.”

Jay Jr. added this note on production:

“Over the years we have found that our best hay is baled usually between 3 and 8 pm. There are a lot of people who want to get started baling after dinner, when the heat is down, but here in the Midwest, we have found you lose a lot of quality at that point. We are set up with preservatives if we need to keep the quality higher, but we would rather do it right to begin with than have to fight with moisture problems later.

The only time we have baled later than 8 pm is when we are in a drought situation and we need the dew to hold the leaves on the stems, but this is the exception rather than the rule.”

When it comes to marketing and sales, Jay stated that it took a while for people to come around to the need to buy hay based on weight and quality, not just the traditional “per bale” price.

“Pricing hay can be one of the most difficult problems in marketing and raising hay. Every year the prices have to change based on volume, quality and what you think the market will support. There isn’t a Chicago Board to base prices on, and a lot of people want to know long in advance what they will be paying for a load of hay.”

“We got started testing hay over 18 years ago when we first started with large square bales. They wanted to pay a round bale package price, and round bales have a bad rap because of quality problems. We needed to be able to prove that our large square bales weren’t in the same league as round bales.

We want to be fair to our customers, and we want to be fair to ourselves. Testing is one of the best ways to keep everyone looking at a fair price for quality feed. There are few people who can argue with an independent test, although I have found that different testing methods and labs will come up with different numbers, so for me, I just don’t see it as an exact science yet.”

Jay Jr. also commented about the customers they have worked with over the years. “Our customer base has a lot of variation. We have some dairies in the area that take most of our high-end hay, as well as smaller hobby-type horse people who like to get two or three large bales at a time. We also have a 125-head alpaca operation that picks up hay from us when they need it. We even supply a guinea pig farmer who picks up one large square bale at a time in the back of his Dodge Grand Caravan. We delivered the last few to him, but we have pretty much seen it all over the years. By working with smaller operations, we have found niches that many hay growers and brokers have missed.”

When Jay was asked to look back at the last two decades, he summed up his feelings this way:

“I have had the question posed several times as to why are we doing hay in corn and soybean country. The interesting thing is that there have been a lot more people in the area putting up hay in the last five to 10 years. People have looked at our example and are now following what we have done."

“We have found that over the years, we have been very competitive staying with hay. With all the ups and downs the other crops have had, we have found hay to be a little more stable and sustaining over time. Even with the increases in corn prices with the ethanol market, we have found that hay has followed. We questioned ourselves this winter, looking at hay versus corn futures, if we were crazy not to take it all out and go to corn. It ended up we actually increased hay acres and kept our row crops about the same.”

He added, “Looking back, the one thing I would change over the last two decades would be to have increased our marketing and advertising a little bit more. While we have been happy with what we have for customers, a little bit broader base would probably serve our desires a bit more.

We try very diligently to service all the needs of our customers and do our best to find hay for everyone if we end up selling out in the spring. I feel that if you can’t meet someone’s needs, you will lose their business for good. People have the tendency to wait until the last minute to meet their feed needs, so it really can be hard to balance supply and demand out each year.”

When questioned about the future, Jay Jr. said, “I have three boys that could come back to the farm. My oldest has graduated and is now working for a business in town.

He is considering coming back to the farm, and we have talked about it a few times. He likes being out in the country, so I think this lifestyle suits him. In our situation I am certainly glad I raised my kids in a rural setting and small town and wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Granted, going to Iowa State and looking at the friends I graduated with, I could have done better financially doing something else, but I have a lot of freedoms and quality of life I have enjoyed otherwise.”

To the Werts, growing hay seems to be the best way to continue on into the future. It has been an adventure carving out their niche in Iowa, but as Jay Jr. pointed out as he walked through the hay field, “The rain and weather are something you just don’t pay attention to. With the amount of hay we go through, we have to stay on schedule, no matter what we are dealt.”  FG

Darren Olsen
Progressive Forage Grower